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Va. Tech appealing fines from '07 mass shooting

/ Source: The Associated Press

Virginia Tech will appeal $55,000 in federal fines levied against the school for failing to quickly alert the campus during the 2007 mass shooting that killed 32 students and faculty members, the state announced Wednesday.

State Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli made the announcement two days before the deadline to file an administrative appeal of the finding that the school violated federal law. He called the findings by the U.S. Department of Education "absolutely appalling," adding that an appeal was necessary to ensure Virginia Tech was treated fairly.

The federal agency imposed the fine in March after finding that Tech had violated campus safety law by waiting too long to notify the campus of a potential threat after two students were shot to death in a dormitory. An email alert went out more than two hours later, about the time student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty and himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The department said Virginia Tech deserved a larger fine, but the $55,000 was the maximum allowed by law for two violations of the Clery Act, which requires campus notification of potential threats to students and employees.

Tech was specifically charged with failure to issue a timely warning and failure to follow its own procedures for providing notification. The law is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old college student who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986.

Tech officials have denied wrongdoing and said federal bureaucrats with the benefit of hindsight are holding them to stricter standards than those in place on April 16, 2007.

University President Charles Steger told The Associated Press earlier this month that an appeal was crucial to getting a better explanation from the department about the reasons for its sanctions.

Cuccinelli, whose office has consulted with Virginia Tech officials on the issue over the past month, said the school has been denied due process because it has been unable to get answers to its questions.

"These federal bureaucrats have no problem harshly judging the decisions others had to make in a two-hour period of unimaginable crisis and stress," he said. "Yet in the comfort of their Washington offices, they take four years to arrive at a conclusion."

Cuccinelli said the secretary of education would have the final word on the administrative appeal. If dissatisfied, Virginia Tech could challenge the decision in federal court, he said.

Department of Education spokeswoman Jane Glickman had no immediate comment on Cuccinelli's announcement.

A state commission that investigated the Tech shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families are suing Tech officials for $10 million. That case is set for trial in September.